Lancashire mother and health worker Jo Smith Wareing is facing the hardest months of her life.
She has had to leave her husband Steve and children Leah, 16, and Shana, 12, behind to book in to Blackpool’s Victoria Hospital for four months of gruelling intensive chemotherapy.
A recent diagnosis of Burkitt Lymphoma has turned her life upside down. But the 43-year-old is determined to cope and her Facebook blog Jo’s Journey Kicking Ass, which she started on June 24 to keep friends and family up-to-date with her progress, has now amassed 1,600 followers.
Jo, who worked as a nursery nurse in the midwifery unit at Royal Preston Hospital for 14 years before moving into the community team two years ago, is keen to demystify cancer treatment.
Her blog and the photos she posts, have, she says, removed much of the fear many newly diagnosed patients feel - because they now have an insider’s view of what is in store.
Jo, of Longridge, explains: “People are contacting me from all over the world who have been diagnosed. People are also saying they are now not scared of cancer because they know what goes on with treatment. From the start when I was diagnosed it was obviously very scary. I didn’t know what would be in store for me. I was very frightened.”
She was told hers was a very rare cancer and very invasive - but also very treatable, “It was very daunting obviously saying goodbye to my family. The next day it was going to be full on for my chemo. I had a vision of going in to a room somewhere and it being dark and scary. I just didn’t know what to expect.”
In fact she says those fears were misplaced. Nurses told her to treat her hospital room as her own bedroom and she has filled it with family photos. She discovered the chemo treatment she receives would be delivered in the room and was fitted with a special Hickman line device to allow chemo and other medications and blood samples to be ministered and taken with minimum disruption. Her room has already doubled as a party venue when recently retired fireman Steve and the family arrived to celebration Leah’s 16th birthday.
One of the hardest thoughts as she began her treatment was that she would miss Leah’s Longridge High school prom, Jo says, “That really affected me. I was really upset, it was something we had planned. We were going out to breakfast, had booked her hair and nails appointments, got a beautiful dress.
“It’s very daunting at first because you are just on your own. The first week I sobbed into my pillow absolutely heartbroken. Why here? Why me?”
But on the day of the prom there was a wonderful surprise. Jo recalls: “They said we have some good news. As you are well enough you can go (home) for a few hours. I was absolutely elated.
“There were about 30 people outside our house. There was a horse and carriage (for her daughter and friends). It was beautiful. I watched from the house then we went down to Ferrari’s and we watched them arrive.”
Friends have supported her on Facebook with two morale boosting “campaigns”- changing their profile pictures to include Jo’s favourite leopard print design and the hashtag #kickingasswithjo. The most recent featured hob nobs in pictures posted from work and holiday locations, following Jo’s quip that she is like the Hobnob biscuit in comic Peter Kay’s joke - keep dunking her in, she won’t break.
The other hard thing to come to terms with she felt so well before she started her treatment.
She says: “I looked very well. I was going out socialising. I had no symptoms - they picked this up very early at stage one. It was quite hard to accept that they were going to make me poorly to get better.”
After the first chemo it was a good few days before the side effects kicked in.
She says, “It was emotional and very tiring then I was on morphine, quite dazed off that and not really in control of my body. The mouth sores were a massive problem - I couldn’t eat for nine days.”
But her recovery proceeded and her blood count went back up and she says, “I look back and think yes, I was poorly for a good few days. They looked after me. The staff here are amazing. They make you feel so at home, so safe. They do so much for and they work so hard.”
It was earlier this year that Jo felt as though she had something strange in her throat and discovered her right tonsil was swollen. After a course of antibiotics had no effect and her dentist had photographed the swelling twice, with a five day interval, to see if it was getting larger, she was told she was being referred to hospital as an urgent case.
Jo says, “Within a couple of weeks I had a tonsillectomy. I was told it was a tumour contained within my tonsil.
“I couldn’t believe I was going from normal family living to the next four months in hospital. We had to plan the next four months.”
Now Jo is also using her experience to highlight the need for blood donors, “I said let’s do something really positive from this.
“I had had my first blood transfusion -I’ve been a donor until now. I just thought what with 1,800 followers if people want to do something for me I can encourage some people to maybe donate, within 24 hours 60 people had registered and sent me screenshots.
“A few people have donated to cancer research...There’s quite a lot of good to come out of it.”
Jo’s second round of chemo starts later this week.